Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Book of Mormon Review

The Book of Mormon
Prince of Wales Theatre, London

This is a musical that has received much praise in America for its controversial wit and humour aimed at the Mormon Church and organised religion. Now this production has finally arrived at the West End and critics regard it as either brilliant or overtaken.

The story follows an unlikely pair of Mormon missionaries, Elder Price and Cunningham, who are sent to Uganda as part of their two year mission. When they arrive they discover that the Ugandans, ridden by AIDs, famine, poverty and a warlord, are not willing to convert to such a meaningless religion. Cunningham, who is prone to make things up, decides to give his own version of the Book of Mormon to the Ugandans in order to persuade them to convert.

From the start I enjoyed the jokes written by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of South Park, and Robert Lopez, who created Avenue Q. I was not disapointed with the jaunty opening song Hello and the Ugandan's own 'Hakuna Matata' song, Hasa Diga Eebowai (or Fuck you God), as a solution to their problems. I enjoyed recognising the homages that the writers were making to previous musicals, including the song You and Me (But Mostly Me) and its allusions to Wicked.  For anybody who does not know the story behind the Mormons, then this production gives highly stylised, and satirical, overview of Joseph Smith's creation of the Mormon Church

For a lot of the first act however I was only chuckling. Matt Stone and Trey Parker are well known for their shock value comedy, something I do enjoy at times, but in this musical it gets tiring after a while, especially after repeating "I have maggots in my scrotum" half a dozen times. Also, despite all the clever moments I previously mentioned, the musical is dealing with too many issues. At one point I was confused over whether the song Turn it off meant ignoring one's problems or suppressing one's homosexuality. It is both, but at that point homosexuality felt like one reference too many, especially when it is not used again.

It is only when Cunningham begins making up stories that the hilarity picks up. From the last song of the first act, Man Up, the musical becomes increasingly crazy as Cunningham's imagination goes awry. The result is a take on Uncle Tom's Cabin from The King and I where the Ugandans show a disgusted Mission President the made up versions of the Mormon stories called Joseph Smith American Moses. Furthermore, despite all the references and satire, the musical ends with a lovely message, that believing in something can bring some good if it is not taken literally.

What is more the musical is played by a fantastic cast. Coming over from the US tour are Gavin Creel and Jared Gertner as Elder Price and Cunningham. I myself prefer Jared Gartner, not only because his character made for a hilarious second act, but also he played a childish and neurotic missionary without becoming annoying. Gavin Creel too was great as the optimistic and ambitious Elder Price and he sings I Believe with passion and resolution.

The Mormons are a beaming and buoyant group of missionaries and during the satirical song Hello their door to door evangelising verges on the maniacal. Stephen Ashfield is fantastic as the crazed leader of the Ugandan Mormon missionaries, Elder McKinley. Amongst the natives there is Alexia Khadime as Nabulungi. I was not too keen on her Nala in The Lion King, but this adorable role suits her.

As part of this satire on religion, the set is elaborately evangelical. The proscenium consists of church spires and stained glass windows against a background of stars and planets. The set designs are pretty basic, consisting of backdrops, flats and platforms. The backdrops of Salt Lake City are nicely detailed and colourful, a contrast to the downtrodden and muddy sets of Uganda. The costume department too produced some creative designs for Joseph Smith American Moses. That said a bit more imagination could have gone into the set design of Spooky Mormon Hell Dream.

Overall the production does live up to expectations. Is it one of the best musicals of all time? Not really. Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone did not need to continuously repeat some of their jokes, and the references could have been cut down. Yet the musical moves along at a jaunty pace and the characters are easily relatable to, thanks to a superb cast. Go and see it at a Low Full Price.

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